I’m continually impressed–sometimes amazed–at the progress plant breeders have been making, especially in the past 20 years or so, in developing varieties and hybrids with new and/or improved characteristics. Two cases in point: The ability of corn hybrids to tolerate less-than-ideal soil moisture conditions, and alfalfa varieties–both genetically modified and produced by “traditional” plant breeding techniques–with reduced/delayed lignin development.
In the case of corn’s ability to tolerate dry conditions it’s sneaked up on us: Both Monsanto and Dupont-Pioneer have been working hard at developing hybrids with this trait, but if you look at the ability of corn hybrids in general–not ones designated as “drought tolerant”–you’d see that plant breeders have been making progress in this characteristic for many, many years. Today’s hybrids not only have the ability to produce more corn grain per unit of nitrogen fertilizer, but to do so under tougher growing conditions than those of grand-daddy’s day. And when adequate moisture is present, the drought-tolerant hybrids will produce just as well as those lacking this trait.
I’m also optimistic about the impact that reduced lignin alfalfa varieties will have, particularly where alfalfa is grown in monoculture–no grass companion crop. These varieties have been shown to yield at least as well as conventional varieties, and in a way may be a step back in time since delayed harvest may result in one fewer cutting per year. That means less fuel, less labor, and–let’s not underestimate this–less wheel traffic damage. In fact, some midwest research has found that the reduced-lignin alfalfa actually yields more in three cuts than conventional varieties do in four. It’s still early, but so far reduced lignin appears to be a winner, with the only downside significantly higher seed cost. But spread over three or four years this price premium might seem like small change.